When 14-year-old Michael Carneal opened fire on his fellow students at a 1997 preschool prayer meeting, school shootings were not yet part of the national consciousness. The massacre that killed three students and injured five at Heath High School, near Paducah, Kentucky, ended when Carneal put down his gun and the principal took him to the school office — a scene that seems unimaginable today.
Also the imagination of today: Carneal’s life sentence guaranteed a chance of parole after 25 years, the maximum sentence allowed at the time given his age.
A quarter of a century later, Carneal is 39 with a parole hearing next week that comes at a very different time in American life — after Sandy Hook, after Uvalde. Today, police officers and metal detectors are an accepted presence in many schools, and even preschoolers are trained to prepare for active shooters.
“Twenty-five years seemed so long, so far away,” Missy Jenkins Smith recalled when she pronounced the conviction. Jenkins Smith was 15 when she was shot by Carneal, someone she considered a friend. The bullet left her paralyzed and she uses a wheelchair to get around. Over the years, she counted down the time until Carneal would qualify for parole.
“I would think, ‘It’s been 10 years. How many more years?’ At the 20th anniversary commemoration, I thought, ‘It’s coming.’”
Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social welfare and education at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied school violence, said public opinion about school shootings and juvenile punishment has changed a lot in the past 25 years. In the 1980s and 1990s, Astor gave therapy to children who had committed very serious crimes, including murder, but who were rehabilitated and not imprisoned.
“Today they would all be locked up,” he said. “But the majority went on to do good things.”
Jenkins Smith knows firsthand that children with difficulties can be helped. She worked for years as a counselor for at-risk youth, where her wheelchair served as a stark visual reminder of what violence can do, she said.
“Children who would threaten school shootings, terrorist threats, were sent to me,” she said. Some are now adults. “It’s great to see what they’ve accomplished and how they’ve changed their lives. They have learned from their bad decisions.”
But that doesn’t mean she thinks Carneal should be released. For starters, she worries that he isn’t equipped to handle life outside of prison and could still harm others. She also thinks it wouldn’t be good for him to roam free while the people he injured are still suffering.
“For him to have a shot at 39. People get married at 39. They have kids,” she said. “It’s not good for him to live a normal life that the three girls he killed will never have.”
The shooting killed 14-year-old Nicole Hadley, 17-year-old Jessica James and 15-year-old Kayce Steger.
Astor said that when it comes to the worst crimes, like many people, he struggles with the question of what age children should be held strictly accountable for their actions. As a class exercise, he makes his students think about the appropriate punishment for an offender of different ages. Should a 16-year-old be treated the same as a 12-year-old? Should a 12-year-old be treated the same as a 40-year-old?
Without any national consensus, you end up with a patchwork of laws and policies that sometimes result in very different sentences for nearly identical crimes, he said.
The Heath High School shooting occurred on December 1, 1997, the Monday after Thanksgiving. Less than four months later, 11-year-old Andrew Golden and 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson shot and killed four classmates and a teacher at Westside Middle School near Jonesboro, Arkansas. They injured another nine children and an adult. The couple were tried as minors and released on their 21st birthday.
Two decades later, in 2018, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz killed 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. At the same time as Carneal is being considered for possible release, a Florida jury decides whether Cruz will be sentenced to death.
Jenkins Smith has been trying for years to understand why Carneal opened fire on his fellow students that day. She was in the marching band with Carneal, and before the shoot, “I loved being around him because he made a dull day fun,” she said.
She met Carneal in prison in 2007 and had a long chat with him. He apologized to her, and she said she has forgiven him.
“A lot of people think this exempts him from consequences, but I don’t think so,” she said.
Carneal’s conditional hearing begins Monday with testimonies from those injured in the shooting and close relatives of those who died. Jenkins Smith said she only knows one victim who supports some form of assisted release for Carneal — less restrictive than prison, but not unlimited freedom. On Tuesday, Carneal will defend his case from the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange. If the board decides against parole, they can decide how long Carneal has to wait for his next parole opportunity.
The parole hearing will be via video conference, but Jenkins Smith said she will position her camera to show her entire body so that the probation commission can see her wheelchair. It will, she said, be “a reminder that anyone who experienced that impact 25 years ago will still be dealing with it, for the rest of their lives.”
News Researcher Jennifer Farrar contributed to this report from New York City.